October 8, 2008
Wall Street, Main Street, Jew Street
But if I hear one more politician extol the virtues of "small towns," I am fixing up a hiding place in my attic.
If I hear one more pundit bash Wall Street and grow misty over Main Street, I will check airfares out of the country.
"We grow good people in small towns," vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin said in her acceptance speech at the Republican convention. The crowd went wild with applause.
Sen. Barack Obama told a Florida audience last month, "[Sen. John McCain] wants to run health care like they've been running Wall Street. Well, senator, I know some folks on Main Street who aren't going to think that's such a good idea."
First the presidential election and now the financial crisis have given rise to rhetorical nativism. It is open season on the big city. In their bid for those elusive independent, middle-class voters, McCain and Obama and their seconds, Sen. Joe Biden and Palin, are fanning the myth that the real America resides in some shining Mayberry on a hill. If only those nasty money changers and culture vultures in the seething cities below would just let them sow their wheat and do their books and raise their children up good.
These tropes are not new to America; they are older than Shylock. The Jews make up the city: corrupt, scheming, complicated; while the common folk, the good people, occupy the farms and villages. The Jews lord over the metropolises, making easy money off the hard labor of others.
There's an overlooked and ultimately sympathetic 1934 movie, "The House of Rothschild," which perfectly captures the previous centuries of anti-Semitic caricature.
The film opens in 1750 on Frankfort's "Jew Street," as Mayer Amschel, founder of the Rothschild line, scurries to hide his precious guilden from the cruel tax collector.
"They keep us in chains!" he tells his boys. "They won't let us learn a trade! They won't let us own land. So make money. Money is the only weapon the Jew has to defend himself with."
This stereotype and its accompanying rhetoric only ramps up in times of economic crisis. During the Great Depression, anti-Semitism was most virulent not in the cities where Jews lived but in the Farm Belt and Far West, where the image of "the Jew" lived.
Now the Anti-Defamation League reports "a dramatic upsurge in the number of anti-Semitic statements being posted to Internet discussion boards devoted to finance and the economy."
Scan those Web sites and you quickly see what the candidates themselves likely don't even realize: For the bigots and haters, Wall Street is code, the city is code, Hollywood -- a staple enemy in the culture wars -- is code. They're code for "Jew."
We shouldn't be surprised. After all, when Palin said, "We grow good people in small towns," she was quoting the late Westbrook Pegler, a notorious anti-Semitic columnist who called Jews "geese," because "they hiss when they talk, gulp down everything before them and foul everything in their wake."
Our candidates and our talking heads should be ashamed or, at least, careful. Because not only are such black-and-white dichotomies dangerous, they're dumb.
Wall Street is not solely to blame for what's happened -- Main Street was a willing and gluttonous partner. And people on Main Street kept voting into office leaders who spouted pure pablum about "government getting out of the way" and deregulation and took their eyes off the market chicanery.
Main Street and Wall Street are inextricably bound up and always have been. Credit is as important to the economy as corn.
"Why is it everyone always talks about protecting the family farmer?" Rep. Barney Frank once told me. "What about the family shoemaker? What about the family banker?"
And those stump-speech paeans to small towns? Please.
First of all, most Americans live in cities, suburbs and exurbs. Cities aren't cruel, shapeless Gothams and Gommorahs, they are historic centers of creativity and capital, beacons of hope and opportunity. New York is the symbol of American achievement -- the terrorists on Sept. 11 didn't go after Wasilla or some Home Depot in Delaware. Los Angeles -- if it can get its act together -- is the city of the 21st century, where Hollywood shapes the world's current imagination and future reality. Ingenuity, productivity and creativity gushes out from America's cities.
Last Sunday, I attended a fundraiser for Friends of the Los Angeles River. They closed off the Sixth Street Bridge downtown and filled it with a buffet, dinner tables and a dance floor. Maybe 300 people showed up to support a waterway whose restoration will knit together all sorts of economically and ethnically diverse communities. I stood on the bridge watching the sun set behind the rail yards, behind the downtown skyscrapers and the distant hills, and I saw in that instant how Los Angeles is a great city made up of small towns: We call them neighborhoods.
I live in one of those small towns, and so do you. I like that Wall Street, when it works well, provides the wherewithal for my Main Street to grow and compete.
So I'm not going to pack my bags yet, but I sure know where I'd run to if need be. Because no matter how much they hate Wall Street and how much they fume over Hollywood, they always say they love Israel.
I guess that's where the good Jews live.